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New Times Powerhouse Partners--a Brash Journalist and a Savvy Businessman--Know How to Kick Up Dirt

July 29, 1996|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — Michael Lacey snorts at the thoughts. That the fire in his belly is now from Irish whiskey, not journalistic passion. That a Cadillac and a home in Paradise Valley--a Bel-Air with saguaros--means he has slipped from enfant terrible to an eminence grise sucking on the establishment he once bashed.

And that buying Los Angeles View and importing his feisty New Times organization to diverse, overgrown L.A. is a 3.5-million-person bite even this executive editor won't be able to chew.

"That's bull----," says Lacey. That's his favorite dismissal. Especially when dismantling suggestions that his verve has turned to tapioca. "Writing so people will understand . . . working with writers, with editors is still the most important thing I do."

Although not as exciting as entering cities like William Tecumseh Sherman and sticking it to what he sees as overfed administrations and complacent media.

As he has in Arizona for 26 years, and more recently in San Francisco, Denver, Dallas, Houston and Miami. With noise, the busting of chops and spaying of sacred cows. Yet with the reputation of an award-winning crusader for causes he believes are rarely heard above the bluster of soiled businessmen and inept governments.

"We tell stories of where we live; our readers can decide what they want to do about it," says Lacey, 48, blue eyes faded a shade, brown becoming slate in hair and mustache. "It's not up to Lacey and Larkin to decide what we want the community to become."

*

Jim Larkin quickly disarms other myths. That he and Lacey aren't an inseparable match. That one more cutting story, another indiscretion by partner Lacey will persuade advertisers to go elsewhere and New Times' $50 million-a-year business to go away.

And that Los Angeles, with its proven ability to eat giants with one touch of a cell phone, might be too much for these cowboys.

"Wrong," says Larkin, chairman and CEO of New Times Inc. He's not as profane as his partner. But just as direct. "We heard the same when we went into Miami. It's too black. Nobody speaks English. You'll get your legs blown off.

"But we have been widely, highly successful in Miami."

Larkin, 47, pinker, larger, less public than his partner, sees no fissures in their Sinn Fein synergy.

They've been married to each other longer than to their wives. Both are college dropouts allied by blue collar Irish stock, who opposed the Vietnam War, and cherish quick cars and ducking to Mexico for rest and solitude.

They met in 1971 with Lacey fumbling to get New Times away from the dull format of a college collective that was more Maoist rag than H.L. Mencken chronicle.

Lacey wrote acid prose. Larkin sold advertising. He'd wanted to report but was wise enough to recognize a blind spot for visualizing and developing good stories.

They were hungry days, literally, with Lacey selling his blood to buy food. At one point, they raised $38,000 by selling $1 shares in a desperate lunge to keep their counterculture weekly breathing.

Nowadays, Larkin reads half a dozen newspapers each morning and 20 magazines a month. His idea of a caring Christmas gift is a year's subscription to the Economist. He isn't quite so cerebral about Lacey.

"We share that in-your-face, [screw] you basic," Larkin says. "He does it editorially. I do it from the business side. We're on a winning streak."

*

Lacey speaks with a confidence that some translate as arrogance. The talk is hard, he suffers few fools, and that mien has earned him an image as a cracker of kneecaps.

But then, he mines a form of journalism where outrage and political incorrectness are editorial policies. Calling the governor a crook, the police chief a liar, the mayor a doofus, rarely win gold medals for civic contribution.

Here's Lacey on those who have written him up as a brawling, alcoholic, loose Irish cannon with a finger-snap fury that once--after slurs against a New Times reporter--saw him trying to throttle a mayor's aide: "I know we put out a great newspaper, and you can't take that away from me with yellow journalism. And there were a lot more politicians, lobbyists and developers who could have used a good slapping around."

On those who believe comfortable, wealthy editors make lousy champions of the hurting and impoverished: "It was never written anywhere that you must be poor to be righteous. We make lots of money, we want to make more money, and we're not the least bit apologetic about it."

And on his reason for entering journalism: "I just wanted to punch a few . . . people in the head."

He has punched a head that belonged to one of his reporters. He approved a ploy to trick a legislator into taping obscene lyrics later broadcast to crowds outside the state capitol. And allowed another reporter to misstate the purpose of a photo shoot so Arizona's attorney general would pose, unknowingly, with an escaped convict.

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